Joe Engel: Donating Blood to Make a Difference
Monday, January 28, 2013 at 8:55AM
Laurie Brady - Webmaster

by Tom Rademacher,
former columnist for the Grand Rapids Press

Joe Engel says he gives blood – 18 gallons to date – because he was talked into it by a former girlfriend he’d met while in college.

But the more time you spend with him, one wonders if the reason isn’t just as closely tied to a lesson in grace that he learned during the same period in his life – inside a grimy service station on a cold winter’s night.

Nearly 40 years have passed, but Joe can still see his former boss, John Devine, performing an act of compassion that completely belied the gruff Irishman’s rugged exterior.

A family had limped their car into Devine’s Enco service station – long gone now – on a busy streetcorner in southeast Grand Rapids.

It was 1976, and Joe and the other employees were anxious come closing time to go home to their families. But with just 10 minutes to go, a Hispanic family with no money and unable to speak English pulled their ailing Buick in, where it promptly died.

“Four kids with big brown eyes,” is what Engel remembers vividly. That, and how Devine and his crew pushed the car in for servicing, despite repeated pleas from the father that he had “nada money.”

An hour later, the car was road-worthy, and Devine herded the family into their vehicle, ignoring the parents’ expressions of gratitude.

Then, with no fanfare, he reached into the cash register, scooped out the entire amount, and pressed the wad of bills into the father’s hands. “Get outta here,” was all he said.

It was Christmas Eve.

Devine died 20 years later, and Engel went on to graduate college, then law school. But he never forgot Devine, whom he counts as “one of the five most influential people” of my life.

His parents make up two others, and it was Engel’s father who first interested young Joe in giving blood, when the youth spied his dad’s donor pins on his bedroom dresser.

That was in 1975, the same year that Joe’s girlfriend at the time, a classmate of his at Michigan State University, convinced him to try donating during a student blood drive.

He agreed, and just moments into the procedure, “passed out stone-cold” when his finger was pricked for a blood sample.

Buoyed by her enthusiasm though – and her willingness to hold his hand – he tried a second time. And 37 years later, Joe Engel, now 58, gives religiously, virtually every 56 days.

“It’s a selfishly simple act, with a huge upside for the person who needs it in the moment,” says Joe. “My goal is to give as long as my health allows.”

If anyone were to rationalize that there wasn’t enough time to donate blood, Joe Engel could make a case. He practices law full-time, sits on an advisory board for Big Brothers Big Sisters, reads stories weekly to incarcerated juvenile offenders, serves as a cantor at St. Robert’s Catholic Church in Ada, and savors his busy role as husband, father of three, and caregiver to his father, the Hon. Albert J. Engel, former federal and U. S. Court of Appeals judge.

He also enjoys scuba diving, bicycling, running, reading, and playing bridge.

But Joe always makes time for donating, and is proud that his law firm – Smith, Haughey Rice & Roegge – regularly sponsors blood drives at its offices in downtown Grand Rapids, relying heavily on employee Julie Moore to do the set-up and recruiting.

Joe has some added incentive to give: His blood lacks a particular antibody, making it safe to administer to infants.

His only regret as far as donating goes, is that he wasn’t immediately aware after contracting prostate cancer five years ago, that the time he was required to wait before giving again was just a year – not five, as he’d mistakenly believed.

“That’s eight, ten, maybe twelve donations I missed,” he says.

Joe encourages everyone of age to consider donating, emphasizing that “It’s not a painful process,” and how within a day or two of giving, “people can be walking around with a lifesaving donation” thanks to the hour that a donor put in to make it happen.

“You’re literally making a difference in someone’s life,” says Joe, “and in the life of someone’s family. It’s a huge ripple effect.”

Joe is especially hopeful that more younger donors continue to emerge. “I would love to see donating blood as one of the ‘cool’ things that 18-to-25-year-olds do,” he says.

And entering Michigan Blood’s headquarters at 1036 Fuller Avenue NE in Grand Rapids, he points out, is to engage “a very clean, open, welcoming facility.

“The staff is wonderfully accommodating,” says Joe, and then with a wide smile, adds that “The great coffee and cookies don’t hurt, either!”

Article originally appeared on Michigan Blood (
See website for complete article licensing information.